The Sanctions Working Group of Unite Community Leeds & Wakefield Branch has just published an online version of A Guide to Food Aid in Leeds. A sign of austere neoliberal times. Thank you to Leeds-based Unity in Poverty Action for all their considerable help with the guide. A hard copy will be ready soon. Further details of the guide are available here
Unite Community member, Gerry Lavery, considers how the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, one time leader of the Italian Communist Party and political theorist, have helped to inform the work of the Sanctions Working Group of Unite Community Leeds and Wakefield Branch. The harsh yet ineffective sanctions regime stubbornly remains. Until popular perceptions of working-age claimants are challenged in a more strategic way at a local and national level, then the hostile climate that supports sanctions is likely to persist.
Benefit sanctions have had devastating consequences, including death. They have often been applied to the most vulnerable, but have also been linked to poor health, worsening family relations, debt, homelessness and crime. Nor is there much evidence in the UK that they work. But, through Universal Credit, they will remain and be extended to those working and previously receiving tax credits. This policy is known as ‘in-work conditionality’, i.e., unless claimants can justify working a certain number of hours or not pursuing better paid jobs, they could also be penalised. Trials of the policy have already highlighted its potentially damaging impact.
Campaigning against sanctions has understandably often focused on policy and its impact, however, to understand the drivers of such policies, we also need to consider popular attitudes towards claimants. An unlikely figure whose work might help us in this regard is the former Italian communist leader and political theorist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937).
Common sense and benefit sanctions
Gramsci’s great contribution was, following Lenin, to develop the concept of hegemony, outlined in his Prison Notebooks. He used it to understand how the ruling class maintains its power and the need for subordinate groups to forge alliances in order to change the balance of forces to transform society. While control of the economy was key, Gramsci also understood that ‘leadership’ in the political and ideological spheres was necessary in securing hegemony.
Hall and O’Shea draw on Gramsci’s idea of common sense to understand ‘common-sense neoliberalism’, including popular negative attitudes towards social security claimants. Like Gramsci, they see common sense less as practical wisdom but more as a framework of meaning for people. It is distilled over time from multiple influences, relies on simplified, often contradictory, ideas to understand the world and is expressed in everyday language. For example, the idea of the ‘benefit scrounger’ is often invoked but without much reflection or evidence to support it.
Such attitudes are also amplified by politicians to justify benefit reforms while tax cuts go to the rich. In a speech, George Osborne referred to ‘the shift worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’. Following the speech, government research revealed that over a four year period four out of five claimants spent three quarters of their time off benefits.
While Hall and O’Shea observe that common sense is often socially conservative, it is not irredeemably so. Gramsci states that it contains a ‘healthy nucleus’ or ‘good sense’. For example, in their research into Sun readers’ comments at the time of social security reforms, Hall and O’Shea report not only stereotypes about claimants but also progressive elements. While claimants are referred to as ‘lazy’ and ‘living in luxury’, there are comments that those on tax credits are also in work, and that cuts to disability benefits are ‘cruel’. It is this kind of terrain that can be built upon by the left, they suggest.
From common sense to good sense
The union I am a member of, Unite Community, includes and supports unemployed people. In some parts of the union, help is often given with welfare rights and there may also be discussions about unemployment and the nature of the social security system. This is not necessarily straightforward as claimants may have internalised some of the stereotypes which abound about them. Some may also regard themselves as ‘more deserving’ than others and so on. Common sense, then, can work in harmful and contradictory ways and alternative explanations need to be gently posed. Opportunities may also present themselves for challenging the views of non-claimants, whether at home, at work or in the community. Consciousness-raising can be difficult work, so it is important that it is undertaken skilfully and in a spirit of dialogue and in a way which does not seek to impose an alternative view. In saying this, however, pragmatic judgements about what is achievable, especially in relation to the intransigent, may have to be made.
We might be encouraged by a YouGov poll cited by Hall and O’Shea. It reported that respondents thought that 41 per cent of the welfare budget on average went to unemployed people, whereas the actual figure was only 3 per cent. There was also a perception that just under a third of the budget was wasted by fraud; however, the real figure was 0.7 per cent. Such views are then tied to market common sense – ‘you can only have what you pay for’ – and that benefits must be cut to counteract the deficit. Hall and O’Shea comment on the instability of common sense because the polling they refer to reveals that when respondents were given the correct figures, they became more sympathetic to claimants. Common sense, it seems, is not always fixed and can shift.
Anti-sanctions campaigning as a war of position
As well consciousness-raising, there is also a need for a wider political strategy. In complex societies, Gramsci observed, the state is surrounded by a powerful system of ‘earth works and fortresses’ of organisations in civil society which influence the nature of the state. Gramsci was referring to the private realm here such as voluntary associations and political parties when not in office. If power is to change hands, then any successful counter-hegemonic project would need to dismantle those earthworks and fortresses, to influence civil society, to form alliances, to shift the balance of forces. He called this strategy ‘a war of position’. Although Gramsci was a revolutionary, his strategy might also inform more contemporary politics and Labour’s struggle against neoliberalism and, indeed, anti-sanctions campaigning.
My own branch of Unite Community has formed a sanctions working group with a brief to support local claimants but also to counter the dominant narrative on social security and to build alliances with local groups. We have, for instance, made links with church-related organisations such as an anti-poverty project, which includes a food aid network. In collaboration with the project, we have published a food aid guide which takes an anti-sanctions stance. We have also produced a campaigning leaflet for outreach work, which challenges stereotypes about claimants and points to the state benefits that accrue to the rich through subsidies, tax cuts and tax avoidance. There are also plans for media training and further campaigning.
At a broader political level, we have devised a model motion to go to local trades councils and constituency Labour parties. It asks Labour to prioritise a relentless fight against sanctions by backing ‘an urgent, vigorous and high profile campaign’ against them. It calls for a challenge to popular stereotypes about claimants and to promote an anti-sanctions culture. It further asks Labour to challenge the dominant narrative wherever possible, including in the media, and to contrast the situation of claimants with the preferential treatment for the rich. Finally, it calls upon Labour MPs and their allies to demand an end sanctions at every available opportunity.
Anti-sanctions campaigning is not just important in its own right but can also play its role in the emerging counter-hegemony to neoliberalism. Both require an understanding of common-sense neoliberalism and the adoption of a political strategy of the kind once advocated by Gramsci.
Gerry Lavery is a member of Unite Community Leeds & Wakefield Branch and can be contacted via: email@example.com
This article is based partly on an earlier, lengthier paper written for Unite Community available at: https://unitecommunityleeds.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/sanctions-campaign-discussion-paper/ I am grateful to Barry Ewart, also a member of Unite Community, for his comments on an earlier draft of the article.
Despite knowing Universal Credit causes serious problems for claimants, the Tory government is pressing ahead and rolling it out to thousands of people who will have to wait weeks to receive any money. Claimants are descending into debt, relying on food banks, getting into rent arrears and in many cases getting evicted from their homes because of in- built problems with Universal Credit.
Unite Community, the community wing of Unite the Union, will be holding a national Day of Action on Thursday 24th May to highlight the problems with Universal Credit.
Details of local event
A local event will be held in Morley in Leeds. A stall will be set up in the main shopping precinct on Queen Street in Morley from 11am-1pm where campaigning will take place, leaflets distributed and signatures collected for a petition demanding a stop to Universal Credit.
There will also be a public meeting from 1.30-3.30pm in the Morley Labour Rooms, 2, Commercial Street, Morley, LS27 8HY for anyone wishing to join in a discussion about the issues involved and to consider taking the campaign forward.
Please join us.
With Banners Held High is an annual event to mark the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 and the solidarity shown to the striking miners. Members of the Unite Community Leeds & Wakefield Branch will be in attendance with our new branch banner. If you would like to join us, we will be assembling at Wakefield Cathedral to start marching at 9.30am. on Sunday 20th May. Further details here.
The Collective Spirit Festival, which part is of With Banners Held High, is already underway and will last up until the With Banners Held High event itself. It is ‘a week-long festival of progressive poetry, performance, and culture’ Further details here
Unite Community members supported the parents of students with special educational needs and disabilities in a protest yesterday against cuts to their children’s school transport for their post-16 education.
The parents’ organisation, DEAL (Disabilty Empowerment Action Links), staged the protest outside Leeds Town Hall. Parents and their families were well represented as were a range of trade unions and members of the local political parties. TV and press were also in attendance.
The protest was a great success and the parents made their case well through speeches and through their rightly oft repeated chant of ‘No ifs, no buts, no transport cuts’! Leaflets were also given out to the public and many signatures collected for the DEAL petition. Unite Community congratulates DEAL for a very impressive first ever demonstration and for mobilising so many people.
Trade unionists and members of the local Labour Party and the Socialist Party also made speeches in support of DEAL. We also understand that a resolution backing the parents’ case will be going to a local branch of the Labour Party in the near future.
DEAL, with the support of Unite Community, will be carrying on their campaign. Their cause is just and we urge Leeds City Council to think again about the cut to school transport for such a vulnerable group.
In the meantime, here are more pictures from Saturday’s protest.
Please join us on this demonstration to stop Leeds City councillors cutting school transport services to vulnerable young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Show solidarity with the parents and their children. They need support from the Council not more cuts. Enough is enough!
Labour-controlled Leeds City Council has decided to cut universal school transport provision for post-16 year old young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The cut will be implemented from this September. Unite Community is deeply concerned about this decision and urges the Council to reverse it in order to protect a very vulnerable group.
The Council says that only SEND students ‘with the most complex needs’ will be provided with a full transport service, while others will receive ‘travel training’ or help with transport costs such as taxi fares. But, parents say, most of those affected also have very complex needs and strongly disagree with the Council’s view. Parents also state that the mileage rate on offer will not cover the full cost of travel and that escorts will not be provided as at present. The alternatives, they believe, are wholly inadequate.
There is an appeals system for those dissatisfied with travel arrangements. However, parents feel that the system can be unfair as less than 24 hours’ notice of hearings was given in some cases. Those parents with legal support have also seemed to fare better at appeals than those without. Some dissatisfied parents are planning to take legal action against the City Council.
The cuts are also seen as divisive in that parents and their vulnerable children are now being treated differently. The same system of escorted travel as at present would overcome such distinctions.
Leeds City Council states that it consulted parents and children before taking the decision to cut transport. However, the idea of continuing to provide the existing service was not an option in the consultation document, so the validity of the Council’s approach to the process is open to question. Parents have also complained to Unite Community about the lack of any ‘meaningful’ consultation.
How will the cuts affect young people and parents?
The cuts to school transport will disrupt the routines and friendship networks of the young people concerned and will affect their education. It also puts further pressure on already over-stretched parents. Some even face the loss of their jobs or reductions in working hours as a result of the cut. Research undertaken by the charity, Contact, states that these concerns are common when customary school transport ends.
One parent says that her son functions at the level of a two-year old and has very complex needs. If the parent has to accompany her son to school, she will lose income up to the tune of £400 per month in reduced working hours or £900 per month if she is forced to give up work altogether.
Parents also rightly claim that their lives should not be entirely defined as carers of dependent young people but that they need work for the purposes of their own autonomy and development, as well for financial reasons.
The school transport decision is the latest in a number of cuts. These include a reduction in the amount of respite care available to parents and in the hours and pay for direct payment workers, who offer support to SEND students and their parents.
Unite Community, whose members include some of the parents affected by the cut, believes this is a decision which crosses a ‘red’ line as the group concerned is so vulnerable. While we acknowledge that the cuts stem from Tory and Lib Dem austerity measures under the Coalition Government, the overriding principle behind any review of services should be to protect the most vulnerable. This decision emphatically does not.
Unite Community involvement
Following the concerns of parents, a recent Unite Community Branch meeting passed a resolution opposing the transport cut. It was also agreed to send a copy to all Labour councillors on the City Council.
Councillor Lisa Mulherin, the lead councillor on this matter, has responded to the resolution stating that there are no plans to reconsider the decision. The cut is justified, she says, on the grounds that, in the present funding context, the Council has no statutory obligation to continue to fund school transport as at present for post-16 SEND students. Furthermore, the Council needs to look at what it does in order to continue to provide services which are statutory, states Councillor Mulherin.
We have responded to this position by making the following points but, to date, no response has been received, although we know of at least two Labour councillors and some Labour Council candidates who are deeply concerned about the cut:
- the Council may not have a statutory duty to provide transport but, parents argue, it has an ethical duty to do so given the vulnerability of their children;
- transport for the post-16 group has been provided in the past but will not be from September, but, surely, a need is a need is a need;
- some of the parents are traditional Labour voters and are now questioning their political loyalties;
- despite the cut, the Council will continue to have responsibility for the welfare of SEND students as they grow older but the cut does not reflect such a continuing commitment;
- parents may lose their jobs or have their hours cut and need work to lead a more balanced life;
- the parents concerned feel they are being targeted for cuts because they are not a very powerful group.
We hope Councillor Mulherin and members of the Labour Group will provide a response to these points raised by the parents and reverse the cut. In our view, a party so committed to social justice should give the highest priority to protecting the most vulnerable. Indeed, as Aneurin Bevan, the Labour politician who founded the NHS, once famously said: ‘The language of priorities is the religion of socialism’.
Support the campaign
We would ask anyone concerned about this cut to write to their councillors and MPs and to support the campaign as it develops over the weeks to come. It would also be useful if Unite Community members who are in the Labour Party could raise the matter in their local branches and constituency parties.
The parents have established a group, DEAL LEEDS, which has a Twitter account: https://twitter.com/DEAL_Leeds Any parent who is affected by the cut to transport can also contact the group at: DEAL.LEEDS@outlook.com
DEAL is also planning a demonstration against the cuts outside Leeds Town Hall from 12-2pm on Saturday 28th April. Please come along if you can and support the parents and their children.
Support for DEAL is steadily growing in strength and has already received some press and TV coverage. Unite Community stands full square behind DEAL on the issue of transport cuts and will continue to support its campaign.